‘But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’Mark 13: 24-37 (NRSV)
We live in an era where the praxis of waiting has become alien to the human condition. Unfortunately, the culture of consumerism and materialism has shaped the human psyche in such a manner that hastiness and the urge for instant gratification have become the acceptable norm of the day. The praxis of waiting is itself a reminder to humanity of how the gift of life plays out in the world. From conception to death, all creatures are thrown into the domain of waiting. A man and a woman get married and they long patiently to experience the first signs of pregnancy, if they choose to become biological parents. When the woman becomes aware of being pregnant, she and her partner continue to wait patiently as the fertilized ovary goes through the different stages of life. Even when the little child is given birth to, the parents continue to practice the ritual of waiting as they nurture the child into adulthood. Interestingly, it is within the praxis of waiting that the fecundity of life and the catharsis of death are experienced. Martin Heidegger captured this existential condition of being as one that is held captive by the ontology of “thrownness.” In thrownness, one becomes “a being towards death,” says Heidegger. However, there can be no death without life, hence, waiting is also a praxis of life. Better said, waiting is the condition for experiencing the fecundity of life which becomes a paradoxical response to the ontology of death itself. Through waiting, the human condition becomes a dialectical condition of paradoxes – making meaning out of life and the realization of the facticity of death.
Advent is the religious ritualization of the praxis of waiting. It holds in place the dialectical condition of paradoxes that define cosmic life in which human existence plays out. Seasonal changes make possible the proximity of life and death to be experienced in a saturated manner. Advent season is also Autumn season. During Autumn, one sees the open display of resiliency among plants. Trees begin to shed their leaves to prepare for the harsh climate of winter. Without practicing patient observation, all one sees is death. Yet, the ritualization of death that the trees and other plants go through is itself the instantiation of resilient life that will blossom during the Spring season.
Similarly, advent is about shedding the old self that is defined by habits of greed, materialism, violence, and familiarization with structures of death. Through this process of letting go of the old ways of being in the world, death becomes the pathway for which the gift of new life is received. In other words, Advent is the enactment of new life through the experience of kenosis (emptying of the old ways of being in the world). Interestingly, advent evokes a kairos time of encounter where the three dimensions of human time are instantiated within the praxis of waiting. Advent ritualizes the anamnetic turn to the past that is focused on creating a continuum of awareness of divine grace that accompanies the people of God through the salvific history of fellowship. This fellowship makes conscious the joys, pains, anxieties, and hopes of God’s people as they journey through history. Because God is a God of the now, the grace of advent is a grace of journeying. This grace fosters in the memories of God’s people the desire to reflect on their present condition without falling into the temptation to be fixated on the past which is transient. A turn to the present demands of God’s people an embodied presence to all that plays out in their lives and the world they live in. The future that is full of surplus possibilities never opens up to them in the fecundity that is expected unless the present is embraced fully as the locus of encounter with the God of now. Pope Benedict XVI stated this fact of advent as the locus of encounter with the God of ‘now’ when he reflected on the following during the vespers of the first Sunday of advent in 2006:
At the beginning of a new yearly cycle, the liturgy invites the Church to renew her proclamation to all the peoples and sums it up in two words: ‘God comes.’ These words, so concise, contain an ever new evocative power. Let us pause a moment to reflect: it is not used in the past tense—God has come, nor in the future—God will come, but in the present—‘God comes.’ At a closer look, this is a continuous present, that is, an ever-continuous action: it happened, it is happening now and it will happen again. In whichever moment, ‘God comes.’ The verb ‘to come’ appears here as a theological verb, indeed theological, since it says something about God’s very nature. Proclaiming that ‘God comes’ is equivalent, therefore, to simply announcing God himself, through one of his essential and qualifying features: his being the God-who-comes. Advent calls believers to become aware of this truth and to act accordingly. It rings out as a salutary appeal in the days, weeks and months that repeat: Awaken! Remember that God comes! Not yesterday, not tomorrow, but today, now!
Benedict XVI offers a subtle response to the following question, what should we wait for during the season of advent? In fact, his response is aligned well with the content of the Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent, 2023. The Markan account offers glimpses of hope for the patient ones who wait for the entrance of the triumphant God into the domain of history. The salvific movement of God into history occurs only as a disruption of the familiar. The familiar is itself the reign of suffering that holds the psyche of God’s people captive as well as the subjugation of all beings in the cosmos. Yet, what is familiar will be disrupted by the entrance of God into the world that God made to reflect the enduring grace of life in God.
Mark is insistent on the fact that the God of now is a God of surprises. This means that salvation that comes to all through the advent wait calls for a new orientation that marks collective existence. To be a creature of advent is to become comfortable with the phenomenology of surprise that helps to birth forth an awakening to grace that is itself realized through the praxis of waiting. In other words, to be a creature of advent is to allow oneself to be open to the grace of encounter with the God of surprises who is the “eventum that arises in our becoming” in a manner that our becoming “constitutes something which is irremediably excessive in comparison to the usual representation” of what we were before. Before advent, we were creatures held captive by suffering; structures of marginality; and the logic of empire that produces wars, and dualistic ways of being in the world. Before advent, impatience defined our ways of being in the world. However, the time of advent upends all these structures of negation that define our collective existence. This is because the embrace of advent waiting is not like the familiar type of waiting that is passive or a turn to disenchantment and discouragement. Advent waiting is itself a “social action ingrained in the structures of everyday action.” When Jesus commands his audience to “beware, keep alert…” he is inviting them to embrace a type of waiting that is a call to moral actions that make possible the reception of the new life in God (Mark 13:33). Thus, waiting is itself a graced act of resistance against the structures of marginality playing out in the world. It involves an embodied response to structures and systems of evil in a manner that is itself a social action of resistance to the norm. Here, norm refers to the familiar busyness that defines life in a world of exploitation. Advent waiting, as commanded by Jesus in Mark 13: 24 – 37, is both a prophetic act of resistance and disruption, and a way of being in the world to allow for the embrace of encounter through presence to otherness. The gift of new life that will be encountered through the advent time calls for total presence of all the senses so that in the encounter, God’s people would see, smell, feel, understand, hear, and love the God who is Emmanuel – God with us. In other words, advent waiting is the ritualization of wakefulness. But this type of wakefulness embodies inherent paradoxes. It embodies both an awareness and drowsiness. Why is this the case? The grace of advent is a grace of generosity that allows for surprise to be part of the experience of encounter. Without surprise, wakefulness will reduce the encounter to the familiar. Encounter is by nature disruptive. Hence, surprise makes for the possibility of acceptance of one’s limitations; openness to the gift as that which comes from beyond the self; and an orientation towards growth in epistemic awareness, sense of self, and purpose of one’s life in relation to otherness.
Without disruption, humanity is held captive by the addiction of the familiar. Disruption occurs in many ways. It can be in the form of listening to a new song or the cry of a child whose parents have been killed in war. It can be the lament of refugees whose homelands have been taken over by greedy capitalists. It can be the sight of those plagued with addiction to drugs playing out in the suburbs of the United States. It can be the starving man in the streets of Yemen. It can be the traumatized gay person in the City of Kampala, Uganda. It can be the lament of the young girl sold into sex trade. It can be the cry of a new-born child. It can be the joyful laughter of families reuniting during the holiday season. These images stand as a prophetic witness against the mirage of order and tranquility that structures of marginality have conditioned our collective psyches to embrace. Waiting, as a social act of resistance, is a deliberate stance to not go along with the modes of being in a world structured by systems and narratives of deception.
Waiting evokes a sense of solidarity. It is about the recognition of otherness. It is a rejection of individualism. To wait is to acknowledge the fact that something or someone is in front of me. It is a way of being human in God’s world. This is because it upends the urge to be narcissistic. It is itself the grace of solidarity in a world where individualism tends to be the norm.
Finally, advent waiting is also about radical hope. It is hope that orients all to joyful expectations. Hope orients one to look beyond the horizon of suffering and to see the resilient light of new beginnings. Advent is about new beginnings. It is on this note that one can say that advent waiting is the pathway for experiencing new life for. The current wars between Ukraine and Russia, and Hamas and Israel, call for a turn to the prophetic and the liberational advent waiting that ought to foster new beginnings and the reign of peace. Advent hope demands of us to insist that peace must be given a chance. Permit me to end this work by citing the inspiring words of Jack M. C. Kwong on the phenomenology of hope. “To hope for an outcome is to desire it and to believe that its realization is possible.”
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Benedict XVI. “Celebration of First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent.” Homily of His Holiness Benedict XVI. December 2, 2006. https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/homilies/2006/documents/hf_ben-xvi_hom_20061202_i-vespri-avvento.html.
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Dastur, Françoise. “Phenomenology of the Event: Waiting and Surprise.” Hypatia. Volume 15. No. 4 (2000): 178 – 189. https://www.jstor.org/stable/3810684?seq=5.
Jacobs, Hanne. “I Am Awake: Husserlian Reflections on Attention and Wakefulness.” Alter. Revue de Phénoménologie. Volume 18 (2010): 182 – 191. https://journals.openedition.org/alter/1676.
Kwong, Jack M. C. “The Phenomenology of Hope.” American Philosophical Quarterly. Volume 59. No. 3 (2022): 313 – 325.
Watts, Michael. The Philosophy of Heidegger. Stocksfield, United Kingdom: Acumen Publishing, 2011.
Acknowledgement: I am grateful to the Jesuit Institute at Boston College for providing me the space to reflect and work on this project during my Fall 2023 sabbatical.